In our passage from Sunday, as Jesus and his disciples walk on the road, he teaches them a second time about his coming suffering and death. It is clear once again, that the disciples are unable to comprehend what Jesus is saying to them. It is outside their conceptual framework and outside of their hopes and expectations.
Their inability to comprehend reveals itself when, at the end of the journey, Jesus asks them what they were arguing about on the road. Like naughty school children who have been found out, they all become silent, unwilling to admit the nature of their conversation. They probably realise at this point how childish they had been while walking together on the road. We read that they kept quiet because on the way, they had argued about who was the greatest. Which one of them was the most important disciple of Jesus?
Jesus responds by teaching them with the following words:
"If you want to be first, you must be the very last, and the servant of all. In other words, if you want to be greatest, you must allow yourself to be the least."
What might Jesus be trying to teach them and us?
If we no longer have any need to be great in the eyes of others, if it no longer matters to us whether we are the greatest or the least, then we are truly free. Free from the constant anxiety of wondering how we are being perceived. Free to discover a peace that is also a fountain of joy. If we are continually bound up with the thought of being seen to be great in the eyes of other people, then we live a very precarious existence. Our fragile egos are always in danger.
When we are no longer investing all our energy into wanting to be seen great in other people's eyes, we are free, and then we have energy to give ourselves to other things. Our lives and our energy can be spent in benefit, not just to ourselves, but to others as well. We can begin to make a real contribution to society. I believe this is what Jesus is suggesting when he speaks of becoming the servant of all.
When we have given up concern about wanting to be seen to be great, our lives can become a source of benefit to others.
The Tao Te Ching is a little book of ancient Chinese wisdom. The title simply means “The Way and its Power”. Reading through its pages, it often seems like the Way and the Wisdom of Jesus are reflected in its pages. Chapter 8 seems particularly pertinent to our passage from Mark today. It examines the wisdom we can learn from water:
The supreme good is like water,
which nourishes all things without trying to.
It is content to occupy the low places that people disdain.
A person of virtue is like water which adapts itself to the perfect place.
Let your mind be like the deep water that is calm and peaceful.
Let your heart be kind like water that benefits all.
Let your words be honest like the water which reflects everything as it is.
Let your governing be without force or control like the softness of water that penetrates hard rocks.
Let yourself be adaptable and let your timing be like the smooth free flow of water.
When you are content to be simply yourself
and don't compare or compete,
everybody will respect you.*
Jesus said to them: “If you want to be first, you must be the very last, and the servant of all”. If you want to be greatest, you must allow yourself to be the least of all, to nourish others by being content to occupy the low places that people disdain."
*This quote from the Tao Te Ching represents an adaptation from two translations, one from Stephen Mitchell and the other from an unknown author.